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Russian Sexual Violence Awareness Week: Russia is failing to meet international standards on combatting sexual violence

A white woman looks directly at the camera

April 12-18 marks Sexual Violence Awareness Week in Russia. The annual #StopSN week has been held by “Sisters” Center, a Moscow-based organization that helps and supports survivors of sexual violence and their families, every April since 2018.

“We have long wanted to propose a date to our society, a day of common action against sexual violence. April 18 is the birthday of the “Sisters” Center. In 1994, on this day, our hotline began its work. And now we propose a new tradition: to make the week of April, which falls on the 18th, a week of drawing attention to the acute and serious problem of sexual violence…We need to talk about this problem.” – Nadezhda Zamotayeva, Executive Director of the “Sisters” Center.

According to “Sisters”, about 12% of sexual violence victims file complaints, every fifth victim’s complaint is accepted, and only 2.9% of those who apply manage to bring the case to court, meaning Russia’s official crime statistics likely reflect around 2% of cases of sexual violence against women.

Equality Now’s 2019 Roadblocks to Justice report found rape and sexual assault related laws and practices of the 15 countries of the former Soviet Union, including Russia, effectively deny access to justice for survivors of sexual violence. This is because the legal system provides a number of opportunities for perpetrators to escape criminal liability or punishment, including:

  • Through the way sexual violence crimes are defined;
  • Through the way the law allows for the direct release of a perpetrator from liability or punishment in certain circumstances;
  • Through the way sexual violence crimes are investigated and prosecuted, including with respect to adolescent girls;
  • Failure to designate certain violent practices as crimes; and
  • As a consequence of layers of discrimination against women and girls generally and through intersections with other forms of marginalization/vulnerability.

The report highlighted further barriers to justice for survivors including a lack of faith in the justice system and societal norms influenced by a patriarchal culture that blames women and girls for the violence they experience. Even when women and girls report various forms of violence to the police, physical violence is usually recorded while sexual violence is often overlooked and not therefore recorded

As part of #StopSN week, Equality Now convened a panel, moderated by Janette Akhilgova, Russia and Caucasus Consultant at Equality Now, to discuss how the laws and practices in Russia impact the recovery of victims of sexual violence, and the action needed to ensure Russia lives up to its international obligations to protect the rights of women and girls, ensure access to justice, and prevent sexual violence.

As part of the panel, Tamar Dekanosidze, Equality Now’s Eurasia Regional Representative, gave an overview of the laws and practices that affect countries of the former Soviet Union, including Russia – limited and formalistic interpretations of existing provisions in the criminal codes, lack of ex officio prosecutions and burdensome evidence rules.

Anastassia Zakharova, from the Stichting Justice Initiative, highlighted the need to prevent the retraumatization of children who have been sexually assaulted, during the investigation and trial proceedings. Referencing cases Anastassia highlighted the main problems arising during the investigation of sexual assaults of minors, many of which are similar to those arising in investigations of sexual assaults of adults. She referred to international standards for effective investigations, necessary to ensure child victims of sexual assault in Russia are fully supported and able to access justice without further trauma.

Valentina Frolova, from the Moscow City Bar Association, reiterated the importance of preventing secondary trauma during the investigation of sexual violence and detailed the specific challenges she faces representing victims in Russia. She talked about gender stereotypes and vulnerability as factors affecting the investigation and trials of sexual violence cases in Russia.

To support Sexual Violence Awareness Week and the work of “Sisters” Center, use the hashtag #StopSN or #СтопСН across social media.